History, the Bible, and Belief

If you haven't ventured over to Judy Redman's blog for a while, she has what I think is a very interesting post. It comes out of her experience as an ordained minister, and I find that it says a lot about the problems/challenges that historians face in the classroom and in lecture halls when discussing biblical materials from a critical perspective. The question that is raised comes from one of Geoff's comments. How did we get to be religiously illiterate people? Why are we so willing to be modern with everything else in our lives, except when it comes to the Bible?

Judy discusses the sorts of reactions that people have to historical criticism of the Bible. These are typical too in my classroom and in public lecture venues, especially when people are first-timers to critically and historically assessing biblical materials. Some are delighted to finally be discussing issues that they haven't been able to do in typical confessional groups. They are finding answers to questions that they have had for years. They engage and express relief and true joy. Others wonder what is going on and want to know when am I going to start talking like a minister. Still others close down because what I do with the texts is not something that they have encountered before in church or bible studies. I usually hear criticisms - that my approach to the biblical literature is "biased," by which is usually meant that I am biased because I do not assume the text's inspired nature and infallibility. In this way, whatever historical work I do on the texts is dismissed by them off hand.

I have wondered about this for years, since it is a continual struggle. Where does this illiteracy and the resistance to becoming literate about biblical issues come from? Judy tells us about her experience within the church, and I find this "confession" fascinating. What I have thought about in this regard is not so much the church, but at least here in the States, the separation of Church and State. Many Christians complain about this separation because they want to pray in schools and hold bible studies as part of the curriculum; but really the separation of Church and State has done more to foster their devotional Christianity than not. Why? Because 100% of education about Christianity is controlled by the churches, until college when it can be elected as a class. So when students come into one of my classes approaching the bible from an historical-critical perspective, there is no preparation for that. Since what I do is so different from anything they have encountered before in the pew, it is easily dismissed as "biased" against Christianity, and folded into the "false teacher" rhetoric.

So I add to Judy's opinion that church leaders have kept the historical perspective under wraps - when the State can't teach youngsters about the critical history of religion(s), this leaves its education to the Church, which can choose what it wants to tell its parish and what it wants to keep silent about.

Now, just in case you jump to the wrong conclusion, I'm not advocating that the State take control of religious education. Why? Because I am more afraid of how terribly this would be done than I am about leaving it undone. I am afraid that it would turn into involuntary confessional bible courses, rather than historical critical studies of the bible and religion(s) such as is done on university campuses.

Long and short of it - if you go to college, take Religious Studies courses and learn. If you don't go to college, go to the bookstore or university library and get books (respected historical ones; not pop junk) to read on your own. As far as religious education, it is up to you.